Nathan Wright holds an MBA and a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Kentucky, and has channeled these fields of knowledge and insight into the development of a satellite to help protect us from falling space junk, as well as a board game that gives players a way to wrap their mind around the global energy situation.
Nathan grew up in Green Hill in Eastern Kentucky.
Q: What age were you when engineering entered the picture?
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A: Probably around seventh to eighth grade. I started looking at engineering colleges. I was being recruited by several and ended up at UK.
Q: You’re being pretty modest. From what I understand, you scored a super score on your ACT.
A: Yeah. Yeah.
Q: And that caught the attention of the likes of MIT, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a few other top schools?
A: Yeah. I was being recruited by some pretty heavy-duty engineer schools.
Q: Why did you choose UK instead of one of them?
A: I toured the various colleges. But when I toured UK, it just felt like home for some reason. Everybody was really nice. And the engineering department was magnificent.
Q: So, your focuses at UK were mechanical engineering and aerospace, as well?
A: Yes. UK only has a mechanical engineering degree, but they have an aerospace certificate. I pursued both, as well as a mathematics minor.
Q: And I understand that one professor in particular had quite an impact on you?
A: Alexander Martin, my fluid dynamics professor. He didn’t just teach. He actually pulled you in: ‘Here’s how the mathematics actually relates to the real world.’ He started opening my mind to how to use these tools to start building the world around me and create.
So, I started talking with him a lot, after hours, about different research opportunities. He ended up sponsoring my senior design project. We built a small satellite that was funded by NASA.
Q: Your satellite is scheduled for launch in 2018?
A: Yes. It’s now at a “technology readiness level.” It can actually fly in a low earth orbit mission. If that’s successful, then we’ll do a real mission.
Q: And what will be its function?
A: There are chunks of space debris that don’t burn up in the atmosphere. We all assume it does, but it doesn’t. Things like entire rocket boosters have crashed into people’s farmhouses.
Obviously, that’s a big danger.
While we have a lot of stuff in space, it’s not as much as it’s going to be because we’re getting more and more technologically advanced. So, a lot more things are going to start coming down.
The purpose of the satellite is to measure and record various types of vehicles reentering and burning up to where we know more about the physics of what actually happens with those vehicles. There is already one satellite made to do that, but it’s not flown often because it does only that one particular thing.
We took what they had and we implemented what’s called the Kentucky Re-entry Universal Payload System. It allows anyone the ability to place any instrumentation they want inside the satellite. So, research institutions can use this satellite platform and implement all the instrumentation they want to run a mission.
While they’re running their mission in the background, we’re running ours. That’s the benefit. It was a way of making it more accessible to gather this data to be able to make vehicles in the future that will burn up in the upper atmosphere.
Q: Why did you pursue an MBA?
A: I’ve always had kind of an entrepreneurial spirit. I started trying to run my own little businesses in the third or fourth grade. I made die cast models and sold them individually, as well as full sets at school. I’ve always done things like that.
I also started a business in inventing, patenting, and licensing two years before I graduated with my engineering degree. I was already well-versed in the business realm. So, an MBA just seemed like a natural extension. I was already learning from my mistakes, but I wanted to stop making so many mistakes and get a formal education. So, that’s why I chose the MBA.
Q: How did you become interested in creating a game?
A: A conversation with my dad spawned this “Game of Energy.” He owned several coal mines and was trading various types of energy stocks. And he was starting to ask me questions about the stocks that he was trading. He didn’t understand the underlying technologies.
He said, ‘You know, this is really interesting stuff. There should be a way to get people to know more about this.’ I was thinking of a book or a blog. He said, ‘Why not a board game?’
So, I started researching the industries more thoroughly because I wanted to do the pros and cons of each as unbiased as possible. I also researched board game techniques. You’d be surprised how much goes into design of a board game. I had no idea until I started this process.
Q: Why a board game instead of a video game?
A: It’s not just because I like to be different, even though I do. There’s something about having a tangible experience.
With video games, a lot is happening in the background. The computer is taking care of it for you. With a board game, you’re a lot more cognizant about what’s actually going on. Like, when you place an industry on the board, it’s not just a tally on a video game.
With an actual board game, when you place an industry on the board, you’re going to have to physically increase your meters, whether it’s an energy meter or an environmental meter. Having that tactile feedback really enforces what you’re doing. You don’t get that with a video game.
And, video games are everywhere. A tabletop game is more of a niche market. Because of that, people are more passionate about it. So, it’s a lot more engaging. There’s just something about playing with someone across the table that you don’t get with an online experience.
Q: How do you win or lose at the Game of Energy?
A: There actually doesn’t have to be a winner. You can all lose. The premise of the game is that there’s a fast-approaching energy crisis. And your job is to thwart it before it happens. You have access to all modern technologies; biofuel, fossil fuel, hydroelectric, nuclear, solar, and wind. Your goal is to place them in various climate zones and geographies on the board to generate not just enough energy to thwart the crisis, but also do so in an environmentally responsible manner.
So, you find yourself having this push and pull: you’re a larger industry, you generate a lot more energy, but not as environmentally friendly. Whereas, your smaller industries are a lot more environmentally friendly, but don’t produce a lot of energy. So, you find yourself basically making an energy portfolio like someone would in the real world.
While the goal of the game is to generate enough energy, the credit you get from the government to be able to build is based on your environmental impact.
Q: And what can a person learn from this game?
A: Most people come into it with a preconception, whether it’s favorableness to one industry, or hatred of another.
Let’s say that you’re really pro hydroelectric. So, you start out building pretty much nothing but hydroelectric. But you don’t get all day to play. You only get six rounds. So, about midway through the game, you start saying ‘I’m generating this or that, but I’m falling behind the other player. They’re gonna beat me.’
So then, you have to diversify. And once you realize that, then you start looking more rationally at what fits where and which way is better and what way is worse. By the end of the game, you may have industries built on the board that you never would have thought that you would have chosen.
And so, you then see why things are built the way they are and why we’re doing things that we do. There are also fact cards about the various industries that randomly come up in the game. It’s a fun game first, an educational game second.
Q: And what is the youngest player age you would recommend?
A: Age 14 and up. There have been much younger kids that have played — 8 or 9 year olds. We’ve had about 50/50 boys and girls play this and really enjoy it.
Q: Where can the game be found?
A: We have preorders going on that give you a slightly better deal than it will be in stores. You can preorder a copy at Gameofenergy.com. It’s definitely thrilling to wake up and look at what sales you made while you were sleeping. It’s a pretty fun experience.
Tom Martin’s Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader’s Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.